Is Your Kid Ready For Sleepaway Camp?
How to decide if your kid is ready to camp overnight.
Updated January 2016
For years, you’ve been hearing great things about Camp Terrific at Lake Fabulous, and you can’t wait for your 7-year-old to experience the joy of sleepaway camp. You’ve talked with the camp director, and you’ve asked all the important questions. You’ve run the numbers, and your budget is in good shape. All your ducks are in a row, right?
Before you start sewing name labels into underwear, there’s one more crucial question to ask: Is your child really ready?
No Magic Number
Camp readiness isn’t wholly dependent on age—a slew of different factors matter in addition to age, including emotional maturity, everyday skills and the ability to attend to matters of personal care and hygiene. Because development in these areas varies greatly from kid to kid, experienced camp professionals are reluctant to pinpoint a specific "camp-ready" age.
Instead of looking for a magic number, board-certified clinical psychologists and co-authors of The Summer Camp Handbook Jon C. Malinowski, PhD, and Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, encourage parents to take camp readiness cues straight from the source.
"Kids themselves are the best judges of when they are ready," they say. "When they show spontaneous interest in camp, that’s a good clue the time is right."
When pressed for numbers, Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, says children under the age of 7 typically don’t go to overnight camp. Even most 7-year-olds are a little young, she says, although going to camp with an older sibling may improve the results. "On average, children going into third or fourth grade are usually the biggest group of first-time campers."
Even so, she encourages parents to look beyond age. Can he follow directions and respect counselors and group leaders? Does he get along well with peers? How does he problem-solve?
In addition to assessing emotional readiness, camp directors and counselors suggest parents look at practical considerations, too. How much daily assistance does your child need? For example, can she tell time? Can she take a shower and get dressed on her own?
Counselors are on hand for basic assistance, to lead activities and to ensure the safety of all campers, but they can’t substitute for parents. If your child isn’t used to being responsible for herself, she’ll need some preparation before a sleepaway experience.
"Children should also be able to follow directions and ask questions," recommends Flax. "If a child is too intimidated or shy to speak up, she will have a hard time adjusting. If she doesn’t feel well, doesn’t like the food or needs comforting, she should be able to express herself clearly.”
Before sleepaway camp, it’s also a good idea to make sure your child has had successful overnights away from home. Build it up gradually: Try some overnights with a friend close to home, then a few consecutive nights away and see how it goes.
The Right Environment
If your kid will be going to sleepaway camp on the young side, it also helps to find a program with counselors who have experience specifically working with young children. Be on the lookout for a camp that trains its staff to deal with age-specific concerns. Many sleepaway camps offer day camps for younger kids, too, which is a good sign. Talk with counselors and directors about their training procedures—does staff training vary by camper age? What certifications do counselors have?
The youngest campers do require a level of supervision that not all counselors know how to provide if they haven’t worked with younger children before. And be sure to find out how many other young children will attend. Both you and your child will feel more comfortable if she’s surrounded by other campers her age.